Not Vital & Opas Chantkam

Image by Opas Chantkam

Image by Opas Chantkam


Akhmed in Ardez

Inspired by the artist Not Vital, opas Chantkam brings Akhmed from Agadez, Niger, to Ardez in the Engadin

Akhmed in Ardez is Opas Chantkam’s photographic exploration of a young Touareg tribesman’s reaction to his first visit to another country. In a series of carefully constructed images shot in Ardez, in the Engadin region of Switzerland, Chantkam captures Akhmed’s internal discourse as he engages with his surroundings.

Chantkam conceived the project while working on a book with the artist Not Vital. Vital has a home in the village of Agadez in Niger and has created numerous artistic projects there, as well as built two schools. Through his involvement with the local community, Vital met Akhmed, the son of the Touareg tribal chief. Vital invited two men - Akhmed and another from Cuba - who had never left their own countries to his home in Ardez in Switzerland to sit for sculptures. Chantkam suggested documenting the process of transformation of subject into sculpture and it was while shooting the book that he developed the concept for Akhmed in Ardez.

Chantkam explains, “I tried to think of him, who’s never been on a plane before, never been on a train before, never seen any mountains like this, covered with pines, so vast. I’m putting myself in his perspective and seeing how disillusioned he is, or how disoriented he is. That was what I wanted to capture, almost like an exercise.” Chantkam conversed with Akhmed in French, but the dialogue between photographer and subject was often through gesture. Some of the shots are full of this physical energy of wordless communication as subject and artist converse without words. Many of the pictures are diptychs, some printed and framed as single works, others framed separately but presented in pairs.  In one image (08 A-B) Chantkam uses double exposure, layering mirror images of Akhmed into a single shot. Seated at a table, his hands fly expressively, in animated conversation with himself. As Chantkam explains, “It’s him talking to himself, questioning, he has so many questions”. And so Akhmed is not just subject, but part of the process, participant in the creation.

Chantkam sketched plans for how he wanted to address particular ideas, and his shots are set up with absolute precision. In this respect Chantkam is drawing on his own varied background in fashion photography, film, interior design, and graphic design. The images themselves, however, are unique, unidentifiable. The overall effect is of clarity and simplicity, but every frame is filled with purposeful detail. One diptych (11) takes this idea to the extreme, and is a veritable ‘spot the difference’. By using slightly different framing in each shot, and capturing an imperceptible change in Akhmed’s stance, Chantkam prompts us to look closer. The effect is disconcerting, confusing, as though we too are slightly out of context.

Chantkam uses different techniques to pose questions about the significance of Akhmed’s visit. One panel of a diptych (01) shows him standing in the street outside the house. In the accompanying panel he is gone, and the street feels palpably empty. Other diptychs juxtapose shallow focus and full focus shots. Another diptych (02) shows two portraits of Akhmed. The camera has not moved, and we jump from an intimate portrayal to a blurred outline. Even in an image that doesn’t feature Akhmed, there is a strong sense of his presence. A night shot of one of the surrounding mountains (06), captured through two-hour exposure is layered with an image of the ceiling decorations from Akhmed’s room in Vital’s Ardez house. “When he falls asleep he thinks he’s still in Africa but when he wakes up, he’s in a completely different place. Every time he opens his eyes he feels so strange.” We are transported to a surreal state, seeing what Akhmed sees, in his mind and in his dreams.

All of the images are shot in or around Vital’s house in Ardez. Perched in the heart of the Alps, the village is surrounded by soaring mountains and boundless skies. The house is a masterpiece of traditional workmanship, brimming with Vital’s art and an ancient Romansch library. Chantkam makes significant use of the setting, and the dialogue we are reading is between Akhmed and the immediate context of the house. “While I was shooting the book I was thinking about what I can do in this house. This is where it came from, a simple idea to incorporate the things that he sees and that are a part of the house around him.” Niger is an important source of creative material for Vital, and many of the artworks in his Swiss house are versions of those he has created in Agadez, or have been inspired by the place. One image (03) is a double exposure of Akhmed and Vital’s sculpture of an Agadez barn house. The structure is so familiar to Akhmed, so close to his homeland and his tribe. But instead of traditional mud earth, this sculpture is made of aluminium. Shot on a plate Polaroid negative in black and white, the image is, again, dreamlike.

The contrasts in Akhmed’s journey from the fringe of the Sahara to the mountainous vastness of Switzerland are clear. Agadez to Ardez, only a few letters between them yet worlds apart. But Chantkam purposefully avoids any suggestion of vulnerability in his treatment of Akhmed’s reaction to the change. Instead the images are complex, confident and playful. In one image Akhmed is dressed in his own gown and headscarf, the clothes he arrived in. In others (05/09/11) he wears clothing Chantkam had made in his native Thailand featuring traditional Thai tribal designs. “He feels confident, also he feels different.” Rather than a simple polarisation of Niger and Switzerland, Chantkam stitches together a new world for Akhmed.

By bringing architectural and design details from the house into the images, and by incorporating Vital’s artworks Chantkam creates a rich cross-cultural visual language. The contrast perfectly translates the confusion that Akhmed is feeling and, in turn, is difficult for the viewer to place. All the images were shot on film. All are relatively large scale. Those that are in colour are luminous. The black and white shots are starkly beautiful, otherworldly. Across (number tbc) images, Chantkam achieves a remarkable range of effects.

In keeping with the situational completeness of the project, the exhibition will be shown in Vital’s home, rather than a gallery. The effect of seeing these photographs in the very rooms where they were shot will be captivating.